Sensory perception guides every aspect of our lives, from communication to decision-making. Even weak sensory cues, like a faint light, or a hushed whisper, can carry valuable information that would be detrimental to miss. Accordingly, our perceptual skills are not fixed-- they can get better with practice. In fact, they can get so much better that weak stimuli that are invisible to the novice become obvious to the practiced expert. As a result, we can learn to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste things that we couldn't perceive before. The goal of our research program is to understand how this transformation— from perceptual novice to perceptual expert— is implemented in the brain. Answering this question is important because it would allow us to develop strategies to facilitate expertise on perceptually demanding tasks that currently take many years to master, like detecting a malignancy in an x-ray, or becoming fluent in a second language. These same strategies may also allow us to more effectively restore perceptual skills in individuals with sensory impairments.
With these goals in mind, we study this question in the auditory system, where perceptual expertise supports a variety of important, real-world skills like speech recognition, language acquisition, and musicality. Our primary objectives are to (1) reveal the neural circuits that support the emergence and maintenance of auditory expertise, (2) determine how the organization and function of these circuits change with age or as a result of hearing loss, and (3) use this information to develop or optimize approaches for improving hearing in both health and disease.